Ernie Kim: Richmond Art Center and the WPA
Objective: Create a WPA-inspired poster based on one or more current economic or political issues in the U.S.
On March 4, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in as president. In his inaugural address, he declared that his goal was to tackle the economic collapse from the effects of the Great Depression. This goal manifested as reform programs called the New Deal and the Second New Deal. From the Second New Deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created. A massive work relief program, the WPA employed roughly 8.5 million Americans. While it is best known for its public works and infrastructure initiatives, the WPA also sponsored projects in the arts. With support from the WPA, artists created motivational posters and painted murals of “American scenes” in public buildings. Sculptors created monuments and actors and musicians were paid to perform. This investment in the arts was not only to put artists back to work but to also entertain and inspire the American people, disillusioned by the economic turmoil.
From the WPA, the Richmond Art Center was established in Richmond, California, in 1936. Founder Hazel Salmi wanted a space “to maintain and further in the community an active interest in the arts, graphic and plastic, and an interest in the creative hand-crafts” (La Rocco and Faylor). That is, she wanted a “community studio workshop.” In 1962, Ernie Kim began teaching at the Richmond Art Center and served as the center’s director from 1970 to 1980. In 1998, the Richmond Art Center instituted an annual prize for artists in craft media that bears his name. Today, the Ernie Kim Award is awarded annually, and the center still runs art classes and workshops and holds exhibitions.
In this lesson, you will dive deeper into the WPA and the new jobs that it provided artists. You will also take inspiration from the Richmond Art Center’s community-oriented mission to create your own inspirational message, program, or event.
Common Core Standards (California)
Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies (Grade 11-12)
WHST 11-12.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
WHST 11-12.5: Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience.
WHST 11-12.7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
Content Standards (California)
History/Social Science (Grade 11)
HSS 11.6: Students analyze the different explanations for the Great Depression and how the New Deal fundamentally changed the role of the federal government.
HSS 11.6.2: Understand the explanations of the principal causes of the Great Depression and the steps taken by the Federal Reserve, Congress, and Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt to combat the economic crisis.
HSS 11.6.4: Analyze the effects of and the controversies arising from New Deal economic policies and the expanded role of the federal government in society and the economy since the 1930s (e.g., Works Progress Administration, Social Security, National Labor Relations Board, farm programs, regional development policies, and energy development projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, California Central Valley Project, and Bonneville Dam).
VA 1.2.2: Make art or design with various art materials and tools to explore personal interests, questions, and curiosity.
VA 1.2.3: Apply knowledge of available resources, tools, and technologies to investigate personal ideas through the art-making process.
VA 2.3.7: Apply visual organizational strategies to design and produce a work of art, design, or media that clearly communicates information or ideas.
VA 2.3.8: Select, organize, and design images and words to make visually clear and compelling presentations.
Device with projection capability
Internet and computer access
- Review the development of the First and Second New Deal.
- What were the primary objectives of the First and Second New Deal?
- What were the three major efforts to address short- and long-term goals that were articulated in the New Deal?
Visit PBS website and read The Works Progress Administration.
Discuss: What was the purpose of the Works Progress Administration? How did it assist artists and art centers?
Browse the collection of WPA Posters from the Library of Congress
As a group, list major economic or political issues the U.S. is facing today.
Based on the list, develop what kind of exhibit, community activity, theatrical production, or health or educational program you would like to see.
- Create a WPA poster to attract audiences to invest or participate in your program or event.
- Write an artist statement and proposal to accompany your poster. Your written statement should address the following questions:
- What is the mission of your event or program?
- Who will benefit from your event or program?
- How will your event or program serve your intended audience?
- In what ways will your event or program build community?
- (Optional) How will your program or event ignite action?
- What was the inspiration for the artwork?
- After everyone’s posters are finished, share out: present your poster and proposed program to the class.
Discuss: How might you work to make these proposals a reality? Whom might you write or speak to next?
For more lessons based on Ernie Kim, visit the artist’s teacher packet.